Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! moves forward on school lunches, junk food, ads to kids

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • It may be a sign of a mad, mad world, that on the same day that Michelle Obama announced more healthy changes in schools nationwide, and a new study released suggested some improvement in obesity rates among children, age two to five, Taco Bell announced its new Waffle Taco.  Amid fast food breakfast wars, I guess I understand the need to keep striving for crunchier, creamier, saltier, more sugary compelling items to entice consumers, but the timing was…….really off.  Let’s get back to the important news.


    First Lady Michelle Obama along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has laid out the next phase of her Let’s Move! initiative, calling for restriction on junk food and sugary drink marketing in schools.  The rules prohibit ads that promote unhealthy foods on school campuses, including sugary drink ads which have been a prominent presence on campuses nationwide.  The rules allow for a so-called implementation period, so that current scoreboards and billboards in schools don’t have to be immediately replaced, which might place a heavy financial burden on cash-strapped schools.

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    One of the reasons for this particular effort is the reality that unhealthy messaging and ads have far outnumbered the occasional ad for healthy foods and beverages like water, 100% juice and milk.  Currently, about one third of schools nationwide have already removed or limited these unhealthy ads, and about 28% were strongly considering implementing these changes.   From the First Lady’s perspective, schools should be extensions of the home, with health a priority.  Kids should not be besieged with tempting ads for poor quality foods.  Using the USDA Smart Snacks in School Guidelines, announced in June, the ad prohibition will apply to vending machines, school snack carts, a la carte items in the school cafeteria and items sold in any on campus school stores. 


    While controlling the advertising and sales of unhealthy snacks and drinks, there is also another component in the new rules.  The federally-funded free breakfast and lunch program will be expanded in an effort to address millions of children who come to school hungry every day.  The focus is to provide free meals to all students, especially those in schools with high rates of children that already qualify for the program.  It’s an effort to expand and include kids who are currently falling outside the radar.  The reality is that too many kids are coming to school hungry, and too many kids are obese.  Kids who start the day with a nutritious breakfast have less attention issues, and may also have a lower risk of developing weight issues. 


    On the same day of Michelle Obama’s statement, federal health representatives released a new report that indicated there has been a forty three percent drop in obesity rates among two to five year olds, over the last ten years.  This is the first sign of a true decline, in an epidemic that has gripped all age groups in the U.S.  The trend is a welcome surprise, especially since there’s been a growing health concern regarding the obesity trends’ impact on the rates of diabetes, early heart disease and hypertension among younger age groups.  The drop seems to indicate the first small signs of a reversal in the obesity epidemic, at least among one age group.  Across all age groups, obesity rates remain stable but still too high. 


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    Some explanations for the downward trend of obesity among the very young include:

    • This younger age group may be consuming fewer calories from sugary drinks than they did in 1999.
    • More women may be breast feeding, and breastfeeding is associated with contributing to a healthier weight range in babies as they grow.
    • There is also evidence to suggest that the overall consumption of calories for kids in the past year, is down seven percent in boys and four percent in girls.  The federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children reduced funding for fruit juice, cheese, and egg purchases, and increased stipends for purchasing fruits and vegetables. 
    • A combination of state, local and federal policies aimed at lowering obesity rates may finally be kicking in.
    • Michelle Obama’s efforts to change eating and exercise patterns among kids may also be working, with 10,000 child care centers nationwide embracing recommendations from the program.
    • In cities like New York, the banning of trans fats and posting of nutrition information in restaurants may be affecting obesity rates.


    Experts are cautiously optimistic, since this study reflects a small group of the nation’s children, and a few more years are needed to see if the downward trend continues and expands.  It is encouraging, and the hope is that those riding the obesity wave will hear the report and begin to realize the severity of the epidemic and the need to change habits.  It is especially heartening to see this downward trend among the very young, since it is evident that once obesity entrenches at an early age, the likelihood of reversing the weight gain, and sustaining weight loss, is quite dismal.


    Also coming down the pipeline to support a downward trend in obesity rates is the FDA’s efforts to change current nutrition labels, with a bigger emphasis on total calories in the package or box, clear posting of calories per serving, clear evidence of added sugars and certain nutrients (vitamin D, potassium), and an effort to package certain food products, like soda, in “one serving” containers.   Obviously, a big part of the burden rests on the shoulders of parents since healthy nutrition habits begin in the home.


    Amy Hendel is a Physician Assistant and Health Coach with over 20 years of experience.  Noted author, journalist and lifestyle expert, she brings extensive expertise to her monthly shareposts.  Her most recent book, The 4 Habits of Healthy Families is available for purchase online, and you can watch her in action on her shows Food Rescue and What's for Lunch?  Sign up for her daily health tweets or catch her daily news report at www.healthgal.com.

Published On: February 27, 2014